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19-Year Old Scientist Discovers Life-Saving Use for Shark Skin

Written By: Meghana Krishna

For most people, sharks top the list of animals they’d like to stay far away from. But for 19-year-old Hannah Herbst, these seemingly threatening animals were the inspiration behind the reusable, antibacterial bandage she developed for post-operative patients. The bandage, which is made from shark skin, may lower rates of surgical site infections and reduce medical waste.

Hannah was awarded first place for her research in the Translational Medical Science category at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair in late July 2019. ISEF is an annual international competition that gives scientists under the age of 20 the opportunity to present their research and compete for nearly five million dollars total in prize money.

Every year, thousands of students apply for a chance to attend the fair, and only about 1800 make the cut. Students compete across 22 categories, judged by nearly 1,000 STEM professionals. This year was Hannah’s third time competing at the fair, and her first time winning a category award.

“The competition was amazing!” Hannah says. “Lots of high school students come up to me now and say, ‘I want to do what you did!’ One of the greatest opportunities ISEF has given me is a platform to share my research and inspire younger kids’ interest in science and engineering.”

For Hannah, the shark-skin project was personal. In 2018, she watched her father struggle to heal from a surgical site infection after undergoing a taxing operation. She later learned his experience wasn’t uncommon – there are over 200 million cases of post-op infections around the world per year, she noted.

Through her research on shark skin in Florida Atlantic University’s biomechanics lab, she linked her father’s infection with the potential medical applications of shark skin. Shark-skin is highly resistant to fouling, a property describing a surface’s susceptibility to microbial colonization. Largely due to the shape and surface topography of their scales, sharks are often immune to the harmful consequences of excess microbial film buildup.

As bandage needs vary depending on the surgical site, Hannah doesn’t expect her bandage to completely replace all existing products. However, she hopes her product can eventually serve as an alternative to bandages with low breathability, including some used in neonatal and other high-risk surgeries.

For the 19-year old, science and engineering weren’t always the obvious paths. Growing up, Hannah was a theater enthusiast and sports lover with little interest in science.

It wasn’t until her parents signed her up for an engineering summer camp in middle school when her interests began to broaden. Though she disliked the camp at first, Hannah soon fell in love with the challenges and rewards of building and designing robots and electronic circuits.

“I ended up really enjoying programming,” she said. “Especially the competitive nature of it.”

That fall, Hannah went back to school and joined every robotics club she could fit into her schedule, eventually serving as co-captain of Florida Atlantic University High School’s FIRST Robotics team.

She also took her first dive into tech innovation, developing and prototyping an energy probe that could generate electricity from ocean waves. Inspired by the energy poverty of her pen-pal living in Sub-Saharan Africa, Hannah set out to create a portable device that could act as a stable power source for individuals and families.

In 2013, Hannah founded BEACON (Bringing Electricity Access to Countries through Ocean Energy), an organization dedicated to making clean water and stable electricity more accessible in underdeveloped regions. Her prototype and work with BEACON garnered global attention, and she became recognized as a top youth scientist internationally.

Since then, Hannah hasn’t slowed down - at just 19 years old, she’s built a resume that’s hard to rival. She has traveled internationally to speak on platforms like the United Nations Science, Technology and Innovation Forum, presented her research at the White House, and won numerous awards at global science competitions. She’s received thousands of dollars in research grants and funding and was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2018.

Hannah will be graduating with a dual degree in management and information technology from Florida Atlantic University next fall. As of now, her research remains focused on the properties and applications of shark skin. She is working to finish developing and patenting her bandage and aims to start an incubator program to eventually get her product into hospitals.

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